A horrific house fire in New Jersey, and a posthumous gesture from Ted Forstmann to Padma Lakshmi

Today's tabloids, Feb. 24, 2012. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

New York Post: The story of the massive house fire, of flames shooting into the skies of suburban neighborhoods and firemen trying and failing to save several people trapped inside by flames, smoke and intense heat, is by now a sad sort-of news template. The last time a house fire of this magnitude captured the public's rapt attention was the horrifying Badger house fire on Christmas in Stamford, Conn.

Today brings news of a fire at the converted South Plainfield, N.J. farmhouse of 62-year-old retired hospital worker Ann Jefferson. Seventy-five firefighters arrived at the house only to find flames so intense and widespread that not a single one of them was able to enter the house. (A much more detailed account of the fire can be found here.)

Jefferson and four of her grandchildren died in the blaze; her daughter (the mother of her grandchildren) and three of her other children survived, having escaped the house on their own before the arrival of the fire department. Details of their injuries are still coming out. In one heartbreaking detail, a boy appeared in an upper-story window to cry for help; a firefighter mounted a ladder and reached the window and broke it open, only to be pushed back by a massive fireball that shot out of the window.

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Residents of the other apartment in the house all got out alive, according to other reports.

"GONE IN A FLASH" reads the knockout-white type over a picture of the blazing 19th century farmhouse. "4 kids, grandma perish in hell fire."

Daily News: News of the fire was by no means exclusive. But the News had something else up its sleeve: Frank DiGiacomo's report that late billionaire IMG chair, Republican and philanthropist Ted Forstmann, who died in November, was leaving some portion of his estate to the daughter of Padma Lakshmi. Lakshmi, who was according to some reports romantically involved with Forstmann at one time, was no longer involved with him when her daughter was born. The father of the child has since been revealed to be venture capitalist Adam Dell.

It's an exclusive, and DiGiacomo appears to have gotten it the old-fashioned way: Perhaps a tip to start, but mostly by digging around in court documents. It's not clear how large the amount is, and that's an issue for selling the story of course. "$1B TEDDY BEAR" reads the knockout-white type on a black background; but that figure comes from Forstmann's net worth at the time of his death, not the amount he's leaving Lakshmi's daughter. "Tycoon leaves a bundle to lover's kid" reads the dek, next to pictures of Lakshmi and Forstmann that appear to be separate photos, put together.

Let's remember that the current editor of the News is Colin Myler, who has worked on News Corp.'s British papers (most recently as editor of the now-shuttered News of the World), as well as with the New York Post. Coming to the News, he vowed to take down the Post. Let's also remember that DiGiacomo, who's been at the News for a while, has a long pedigree in reporting on precisely the kinds of society figures Page Six means to own. And perhaps not surprisingly, before long stints editing the gossip section and writing features for The New York Observer (where I worked with him) and as a feature writer for Vanity Fair, DiGiacomo toiled in the fields of Page Six himself.

What all this amounts to is: If you thought some kind of Freaky Friday thing was going on with today's fronts, you weren't wrong.

Observations: Yes, that's the News with a front-page story about a society gal and a money guy, digging through court records and reporting on surprising bequests. And yes, that's the Post fronting a heartbreaking and tragic fire in South Plainfield, N.J. Today, I'm willing to bet, Myler is pretty pleased and Post editor Col Allan is a little flustered. Expect more of this, unless the News, which has had the circulation edge over the Post historically, starts to lose readers by just trying to steal its rival's thunder.

Anyway the results of the Tabloid Freaky Friday for us aren't that surprising: We're echoing a judgment that we've made one way or another many times before, that tragic and unbelievable disaster is always the moneymaker against the small doings of high society, if the two are to conflict directly. It's just that the award goes to the paper that almost never gets it when that's the conflict.

I'll stipulate this: The News also has a Jeremy Lin story on its front. Here's the problem with that: At this point I think readers take for granted that they will get their fill of Linsanity inside the paper, so he needs to be saved for when something's really going to convert readers who aren't already Linsane. Today was not the day, I think.

Winner: New York Post.